By Ron Rolheiser, OMI
We only live, only suspire, consumed by either fire or fire.”
T.S. Eliot wrote those words and, with them, suggests that our choice in this life is not between calm and storm, but between two kinds of storms.
He is right, of course, but sometimes it is good to vary the metaphor: We live in this world caught between two great gods, very different from each other: chaos and order.
Chaos is the god of fire, of fertility, of risk, of creativity, of novelty, of letting go. Chaos is the god of wildness, the god who brings disorder and mess. Most artists worship at his shrine. He is also the god of sleeplessness, of restlessness, and disintegration. In fact, chaos works precisely by disintegration of what is stable. Chaos is the god more worshiped by those of a liberal temperament.
Order is the god of water, of prudence, of chastity, of common sense, of stability, of hanging on. He is the god of pragma. He likes systems, clarity, and a roof that doesn’t leak. He is more worshipped by those of a conservative temperament. Few artists pay him homage, but the corporate and ecclesiastical worlds more than compensate for this. By and large, he is their God. He can also be the god of boredom, timidity, and rigidity. With him, you will never disintegrate, but you might suffocate. However, while he does not generate a lot of excitement, this god keeps a lot of people sane and alive.
Chaos and order, fire and water, don’t much like each other. However, both demand the respect accorded a deity. Unfortunately, like all one-sided deities, each wants all of us, but to give that submission is dangerous.
Allegiance to either, to the exclusion of the other, not infrequently leads to a self-destruction. When chaos reigns unchecked by order, moral and emotional disintegration soon enough unleash a darkness from which there is often no recovery. That’s what it means to fall apart, to become unglued. Conversely, when order totally dispels chaos, a certain self-annihilating virtue, posturing as God, begins to drain life of delight and possibility.
It is dangerous to worship at only the shrine. Both gods are needed. The soul, the church, practical life, the structures of society, and love itself need the tempering that comes from both fire and water, order and chaos. Too much fire and things just burn up, disintegrate. Too much water and nothing ever changes, petrification sets in. Too much letting go and the sublimity of love lies prostituted; too much timidity and love shrivels up like a dried prune. No, both gods are needed—in practical life, in romantic life, in ecclesiology, in morality, in business and in government. Risk and prudence, rock music and Gregorian chant, both contain some whisperings of God. It is not by blind chance that we are caught between the two.
This should not be surprising because God, the God of Jesus Christ, is the God of both—fire and water, chaos and order, liberal and conservative, chastity and prodigal love. God is the great stillpoint and God is also the principle of novelty, freshness, and resurrection.
Thomas Aquinas once defined the human soul as made up of two principles, the principle of energy and the principle of integration. One principle keeps us alive and the other keeps us glued together. These two principles, while in tension with each other, desperately need each other. A healthy soul keeps us energized, eager for life, but a healthy soul also keeps us solidly glued together, knowing who we are when we look at ourselves in a mirror. Our souls need to provide us with both energy and integrity, fire and glue.
God is love, and love wants and needs both order and chaos. Love wants always to build a home, to settle down, to create a calm, stable and chaste place. Something inside us wants the calm of paradise and thus love is about order. It wants to avoid emotional and moral disintegration. But love is also about chaos. There is something in love that wants to let go, that wants to be taken, that wants to surrender its boundaries, that wants the new, the foreign, and that wants to let go of its old self. That’s a fertile principle within love that has kept the human race going!
Our God hallows both of these gods, chaos and order, and that is why it is healthy that both be kept in a healthy tension. To be healthy, we need to bring them together within ourselves and we need to bring them together not as we would bring two parties to meet at a negotiating table, but as a high and a low pressure system meet to produce a storm. After a storm, the weather is clear.
In the tempest there is life and there is God. In it we are initiated, initiated through immersion into the intense fires of desire and the ecstatic waters of surrender.